Over five years ago, during my Christmas break, I googled “how to tell your indian parents you have a white boyfriend.” B and I had been dating for two years, so we were officially serious. My friends were asking, he was asking, his parents were asking, When are you going to tell your parents? The pressure was on, and I had no idea what to do. I was listening to “Defying Gravity” (that song is made for defiant teenage girls) and “Two Birds” (B was the bird who was ready to fly on to the next step, I was the bird holding on to the wire) on loop for years just to prep myself for the conversation that I knew had to happen.
I think the movie industry has covered Indian families enough so that most people have a basic understanding of why Indian children are so terrified to talk to their parents about dating and relationships. And, if you haven’t been exposed to The Namesake or Bend It Like Beckham or Monsoon Wedding or Touch of Pink (seriously, there are SO MANY MOVIES because Americans can’t get enough of our dysfunctional families), then hopefully you have an Indian friend or two who taught you something. If not, this girl and this wife cover the basics.
To add to your perception of Indians and marriage, let me add this shocker: not all Indian marriages are arranged. My parents, now married for 28 years, were a “love marriage,” and—at least in my tiny little subculture of Malayalee Christians and their North Indian college friends in North Texas—many modern pairings are “love marriages,” too. When I reached the marriageable age of 22, my mother was encouraging me to start dating good Indian boys. Unfortunately for her, I was already with B.
I never quite fit in with my Malayalee peers to figure out the intricacies of Indian dating (hence the white husband…), but apparently there’s lots of sneaking around and lying that goes around with just dating the “right” kind of person, too. However, when you finally come “out” to your parents with the “right” kind of Indian from the “right” kind of religious background, I imagine your family would react much differently than mine did.
What I was worried would happen if I told my parents:
- They would actually have the fabled “heart attack” induced by unruly children, and die. This is a basic Indian parent defense mechanism: appeal to your child’s sense of guilt by telling him/her that you have heart disease, and you will die if you hear any stressful news. Guaranteed to work unless your children hate you for stressing them out so much, and they do want you to die.
- They would lock me in my room until I repented. I know, this sounds like Rapunzel, but it happens. It happens in Malayalee movies, and it actually happened to one of my friends when her parents found out about her white boyfriend, or so I heard through the Indian grapevine. And that happened soon after I started dating B, so of course I was scared of this.
- They would increase security in the family so that my siblings and cousins would not be tempted to date unacceptable partners (or any partners). As the oldest in my generation, I was always told that my actions would affect the fates of those who came after me. If I married an undesirable, our family name would be tainted and no one would want to marry my siblings or cousins, or they’d just make sure my siblings and cousins didn’t see the light of day.
- They would disown me. As much as I love to complain about them, my family is really important to me. Feeling a deep tie between one’s family and one’s identity is an essential part of Indian culture. The fear of losing that tie and that part of yourself is one of the biggest reasons why Indian kids back out of “unacceptable” relationships.
- Honor killings. This one’s not funny. Part of the reason I was so paranoid about my parents finding out was because I heard of one happening in the States when B and I were still new. I was scared to death that my dad would snap and come after us (he didn’t).
Because I didn’t fit in with my South Indian peers, I didn’t have a confidant who really understood what I was going through. My best friends were Muslim, hailing from Pakistan or North India (and that’s a whole different culture–check out Aaminah Khan if you need help with that), or white. The advice that I got about how to tell my parents about B went from “OMGOMGOMGOMG be careful! You don’t want to ruin your life” to “You’re an adult and your parents have to see you as an adult now” (hahahaha yes, please try telling that to Indian parents of unmarried girls) to “Fuck it. Fuck them. Just tell them the truth and get over it.” (To my friends’ credit, those are not direct quotes.)
And that’s why, after two years of anxious diarrhea and sleepless nights, I went to Google. At the time, all I found were Indian men’s white wives whose accounts of grappling Indian culture sounded too much like a conquistador’s journal, or forums filled with people who were just as lost as I was. I couldn’t identify with Indian-male-white-female relationship problems (there is a strong double-standard regarding dating in our culture, as evidenced by the dearth of Indian-female-white-male marriages), so I went to the forums. I found people with “modern” parents, who wholeheartedly accepted their child’s lover of another race. I found people who just had to suck it up, be brave, tell their parents, and deal with the shitstorm that happened afterwards. I found some who could only tell their parents after they had moved out, found a “grown-up” job, and supported themselves (I took this path, but apparently Indian girls aren’t supposed to get that independent. I just ended up insulting my parents further). I found some who were even more fucked up than I was: had a secret marriage, had kids, and still hadn’t told their parents.
Needless to say, Google and its endless forums didn’t really help. Rather than acting, I let my fear and fury fester while I fantasized possible ways of “coming out” for the next three years.
How I thought I would tell my parents about my white boyfriend
- Hollywood-style: Over a holiday meal. What better time to deliver unpleasant news than during the holidays? Everyone’s together, and you can get all your emotions out at once. In fact, Christmas Eve dinner at IHOP was how I came “out” to my siblings about B (but they already knew through Facebook, so it wasn’t really a surprise). Alas, everyone’s so happy that I could never do it.
- College-style: After a few shots of vodka. I talked to my parents after vodka once. I said what I wanted to say, and they thought I was funny. If it worked that one time, why not when I’m trying to tell them something important?
- Over the phone. I moved 300 miles away to go to graduate school. That’s definitely too far for them to make an impulsive drive to kick my ass. I thought a phone call during my four years in West Texas would be the key to finally telling them.
- Through a tattle-tale. Indian moms are just dying to gossip. After about four years of dating, I started getting lazy about looking out for Indians when we went on dates. I was hoping someone would find us and tell my parents so I wouldn’t have to.
- Through a faulty lie. Again, I was hoping my laziness would win over my fears. My excuses became less and less convincing as the years passed. Maybe my parents would find me in a hometown Wal-Mart when they thought I was away in a library at graduate school. Maybe they would see us at the movies when I said I was at a sleepover with my girlfriends. Maybe they’ll figure out that my sudden love for polar bears was inspired by my oh-so-white-and-pale boyfriend.
- While I’m talking in my sleep. I don’t even talk in my sleep. Just wishful thinking.
- While I’m on the phone with him when I’m home for the holidays. I used to be really quiet when I was on the phone. I’d hide in my closet and talk in a tiny voice that I was sure you couldn’t hear over the air conditioning. As the years went by, I stopped caring. Part of me was hoping they’d be annoying parents and take my phone and ask who was on the other line.
- Divine intervention. My mom did have dreams of me coming home with “the one” or “the grandchild.” Maybe this is how Gabriel intervenes. However, I didn’t take the divine hint and ask her about the color of my dream lover or baby.
We’re out now, and finishing up our first year of parent-approved marriage. But the way we did it—the way I did it—was far from what you should do. After six years of secrets, we were both fed up with lying, and we got impatient to grow up and get over it. Although we were together for six years, he and I and my parents (the “we” that I was too terrified to consider) were not. We came out suddenly and without warning to my parents, and I was not ready for what ensued.
I searched “how to tell your Indian parents you have a white boyfriend” for the first time in five years because I wanted to know if the internet had anything more to offer girls who are stuck like I was. Thanks to bloggers, the internet has much more concrete steps and advice to approach your parents than what I found during my initial search. I wish I had Madh Mama’s How To five years ago. Compared to her list and her story, I did everything wrong. So here’s my anti-How-To for any Indian girls with white boyfriends who are so desperate for advice that they will look to Google. I hope my experience can help you in some way.
How you shouldn’t tell your parents about your white boyfriend
- Hold on to your secret for six years. Chances are, if you’ve got problems telling your parents about your boyfriend, you’re young. If you have a white boyfriend when your parents told you not to, you will probably hold a lot of anger and resentment in you for however long you keep it a secret. You will be angry that you can’t share this wonderful part of you because of your parents’ “backwards” ideas. Holding on to anger for as long as I did, especially when you’re young and growing up into your own, hurts you and all your relationships. Anger will define you and haunt you, and you may not know how to let go.
- Tell them not to attend your graduation because you don’t want them to see you living in sin. I did a bitch move and decided not to walk at my Master’s graduation because I was scared my parents would see B in my apartment. They were always supportive parents, and they were hurt that I denied them the chance to congratulate me.
- Only tell Mom because Dad’s too scary, and hopefully he’ll just figure it out. #3 from “How I thought I would tell my parents” actually happened… but only with Mom. She knew my dad wouldn’t take it well, so she told me I had to take care of that announcement on my own without her help. So I never did. And I just ended up hurting my dad more when I finally came out because he was the only one who didn’t know.
- Announce a surprise engagement. Yeah, so… this is how I came “out” to my parents. B got tired of asking me when he would finally meet my parents, and just got down on one knee and gave me a ring. Getting engaged before meeting parents seems so normal in the movies…
- Post your engagement on Facebook because they won’t pick up the phone or talk to you about it. I called my parents immediately after the engagement to tell them. But. My mom picked up. So I said, “I need to talk to Dad. It’s important.” She got suspicious, said he was busy, and asked if she could give him a message. I insisted on talking to Dad because, for once, I wanted to do things right. And (here’s where you see that I’m my father’s daughter) he was too scared of the news I would have to give him, so he never called me back. He never picked up the phone when I called. For. Three. Months. He didn’t say a word to me, even after I came home for the summer and lived under the same roof. So I got tired of not being able to tell anyone else, and I posted our engagement on Facebook. The rest of the family found out through Facebook and was outraged that no one told them in person.
- Over text messages. My dad, now angry that over the Facebook announcement, would talk to me, but only through text messages. And man, were they ugly text messages. We were both terrible to each other and hurt each other more deeply than we ever had before.
- Through aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins. Still unable to face each other, we had family members intercede for us to each other. It sounds like a good idea, but it ended up with the whole family getting angry and picking sides.
If you’re like me, and you have a tendency to be a bit rebellious, and you have or will do any of the things I just told you not to do, here’s what you can expect. Because they all happened to me. Somehow, it all worked out in my family, and although we’re far from the picture-perfect, lovey-dovey Bollywood family, we’re still together. And I hope you have the same hope that I do, because sometimes our families love us so much that they surprise us.
What you can expect if you do it the WRONG way (like I did)
- They will get angry. They told you not to do this one thing for years. Let them get pissed.
- They will cry. You heard them guilt-trip you about the hopes and dreams that they pinned on you from birth. They’re going to bring all that back up and guilt-trip you some more, but this time, with tears.
- They will try to convince you not to do it. They’ll pick on whatever they can pick on to persuade you to leave him. My dad even told me that Indians and white people have different libidos and that I may not be able to please my husband once I reach middle age (because white people are sex-crazed and Indians can do without…). It’s OK to laugh. My dad’s weird.
- They will tear him down. That one thing that he’s insecure about? They’ll find it, and use it against you.
- They will tear you down. Those memories that they said they’d forgive and forget? They’ll show you that they did not forgive or forget.
- You will tear them down (and not in the “Yeah! I just won over my parents!” way). You’re their child, and you learned to hit them wear it hurts. You will probably lash out just as much poison as they’re serving you. Be careful. You don’t have control over what they’re saying, but you do have control over what you say.
- (Hopefully) You will both get over it. My family and I got to a point where we realized we loved each other too much to abandon the other. And it’s hard, and we’re still dealing with some of the hurt feelings that started two years ago, but we’re trying.
- They will approach your wedding with the attitude that if they’re “allowing” you to marry a white guy, then you must allow them to do whatever they want with your wedding plans. If you have been watching Say Yes to the Dress or any other wedding shows on TLC where they tell you that this is your day and you should exercise your ascent into adulthood, forget it. I kept hearing Randy’s voice telling me it’s my day, and my parents saw me as a spoiled brat when I put my foot down during planning. My family wanted me to let them have some say in my wedding planning because I didn’t let them have any say in my guy.
- Your engagement and the first months of your marriage will feel like what the first year of dating should have felt like. Meeting the family was something you should have done years ago. Remember how you felt when you first met his family: awkward, scared out of your wits, and more conscious of your skin color than you ever were before? He’s feeling that, except ten times more because you spent years avoiding this moment and telling him how scary your family is.
- (Hopefully) It will get better, and you and your family will grow. I can’t speak for every family. I know some families are rough. I know some families are fucking crazy, and some are just downright dangerous. I can’t tell you that your story will end positively. But I hope it does. Our family problems didn’t stop after our wedding. Actually, they got worse during the holidays, probably because everyone was still traumatized and oversensitive from the wedding. But I do feel that we are all getting better and growing together. I have hope for our family, and I hope you can say the same for yours. Good luck.
Have you been there, done that, too? What other advice do you have for those who don’t know how to approach their parents about an “unacceptable” or “unconventional” relationship?